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Field Guide


Michael Wall, Ph.D.
Director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias

Evolution of an Exhibition: Part One

By Kerri De Rosier

This is the first article in a series of four about the Museum’s permanent exhibition, FOSSIL MYSTERIES, which opened July 1, 2006.

As San Diegans, we all know about earthquakes, mudslides, Santa Anas, and rip currents… but what do we really know about how our region came to be, and what was here before we humans arrived? Walk around San Diego County, and you’ll undoubtedly stumble on fossil oysters and clams—not only at the beach, but in the canyons and on the hilltops. In Carlsbad, San Diego Natural History Museum paleontologist Brad Riney stumbled upon the most complete dinosaur fossil ever found in California. (The ankylosaur is on display in FOSSIL MYSTERIES).

FOSSIL MYSTERIES, a new, permanent exhibition opening this summer, is the culmination of the mission articulated by Executive Director Michael Hager over 15 years ago, which is to focus on the region—specifically, peninsular California which includes Southern California and Baja California, Mexico.

Five years ago when museum staff embarked on a master plan for future permanent exhibitions, the region’s paleontology prevailed over other region-focused exhibitions. “The rationale that people gave was really interesting, and played a big role in our decision to implement FOSSIL MYSTERIES first,” said Nancy Owens Renner, exhibition developer.

“One of those reasons was that people thought of the Natural History Museum as the sole source of information about our deep history, and so we felt that was a unique service that we could provide,” said Owens Renner. “People also felt that understanding the history of this place would help them to better understand the present.”

“If you grew up in San Diego, and walk around the canyons, or go to any of the parks, you’ve stumbled on fossil oysters and things, and you wonder, ‘how did that get here? Was the sea level that high? Was there a flood?’ These are all questions about the history of our region,” said exhibition designer Michael Field. “This is the one place where somebody can get the story.”

Lynett Gillette

FOSSIL MYSTERIES is the result of numerous surveys, collaborations, headaches, and compromises. It’s a look back in time 75 million years, from the Cretaceous period (144 to 65 million years ago), when albertosaurs, lambeosaurs, and ankylosaurs roamed areas that are now under water, to the Pleistocene (10,000 to 1.8 million years ago), an era of mastodons, American lions, sabertoothed cats, and giant ground sloths—and everything in between. During the Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, and Pliocene, fastmoving crocodiles, evolving mammals, brontotheres (rhinocerous-like creatures), sea cows, megalodon sharks, whales, beaked dolphins, and other creatures blazed the evolutionary trail, or took the treacherous path toward extinction. All of the fossils represented are from this region. “People who are interested in the past—in fossils—invariably think that fossils are found elsewhere,” said curator Tom Deméré. This regional museum gives visitors a chance to learn that there are significant fossils found right here—I mean—I’m walking on them. Ninety-five percent of the fossils we’re putting on display are found in San Diego County. I think that’s important.”

It’s also a chance for people to learn about the connection between the past and present. “These fossils tell us about our history—about this place, and really nurture a sense of place,” said Owens Renner. “We’re trying to express that through this exhibition. The sense of place isn’t just about location—it’s about how we relate to that place and how we relate to each other.”

While their mission is the same, figuring out how to articulate the mission through FOSSIL MYSTERIES wasn’t easy for the curator, exhibition designers, exhibition developers, content specialists, and other museum staff. Almost as interesting as the exhibition itself is the collaborative process that resulted in the final product. Did the museum staff start with the collection, or the story? What decisions went into displaying or not displaying a particular fossil? How many interactives do you need to keep up with the “one minute visitor” or the “streaker reader?” And does a natural history museum need dinosaurs to have a successful fossil exhibition?

Interviews with exhibition designer Michael Field, exhibition developer Nancy Owens Renner, curator Tom Deméré, content specialist Lynett Gillette, exhibition artist Jim Melli, and Michael Hager, the Museum’s Executive Director, uncovered different approaches to the same goal: educating the public about San Diego’s rich paleontological history.

Tom Deméré

“It has to fit the story,” said Fields. “A different exhibition might be ‘fossils we like.’ There are thousands of just purely spectacular pieces. But the examples we selected for FOSSIL MYSTERIES help our story.”

“It’s a messy process—it doesn’t happen in linear form,” said Owens Renner. “It’s kind of a spiraling or series of feedback loops… I spent a lot of time talking with Tom Deméré, and taking notes on the strengths of our collection in each one of those time periods. It’s a process like reducing a sauce—you just put all this stuff in a pot and you cook it down and eventually you’re going to get something that tastes really good. It wasn’t the object first or the story first, it was a circular process of finding out what’s really rich here, and what are the connections and what’s going to fit, and putting way much more on the table than we could possibly use. And then continually filtering it out—distilling it down.”

“We identified some key themes that we wanted to express and this was also collaborative, but I think carries the stamp of Tom: fossils are loaded with information,” said Owens Renner.

“Fossils provide different kinds of information,” said Deméré. “We wanted to make that clear, instead of having a traditional walk through time. Fossils address questions of evolution. Fossils also tell us about ancient environments, and ancient ecosystems. Fossils also provide direct evidence for extinction, and how it occurs. Does it occur quickly? Or is it a drawn out affair, and is it selective or universal? Those are the kinds of themes we’ve chosen to use the fossils to tell the stories or solve the mysteries. How do you know that this was a whale or a bat? How do you know that this was an ancient bay?”

Nancy Owen Renner

“It’s not just what is it and when did it live and where did it live, but how did it live, and how did it move and what did it eat and how did it evolve and why did it go extinct, and how did it become a fossil,” exclaimed Owens Renner. “Every fossil has a thousand stories, and a thousand and one questions or more. We took a kind of inquiry approach: science is a process of asking questions, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could engage our visitors in asking questions? …The partner to that is—you can ask all these questions, and then the way that you go about exploring that idea or answering that question is by looking at the fossil.”

But how do you ask the question? How do you pique the museum visitor’s interest? The answer to that question resulted in a kind of a tug-of-war between traditionalists or purists, and those trying to get into the mind of the 21st century museum visitor. “If Michael (Field) were solely responsible for it, it would be a totally different exhibition than if our curator Tom (Deméré) was,” said Owens Renner. “There’s this creative tension that’s sometimes really difficult, but there’s also a way of rounding off the edges of each one of our idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, and bringing the best of all of that together into something that none of us could do alone.”

Michael Field has the range of museum visitors in mind. “The test is—what can a two-year-old do, what can a four-year-old do? What’s there for a 14-year-old teenager who was dragged here? . . . A lot of visitors can’t relate to a little toe bone on exhibit—to their eyes it might just look like a dirt clod. But to a trained eye, it’s the most important fossil, and it might be the only piece of evidence of this animal in this state, if not the world.

“Our curator, Dr. Tom Deméré, has a great example,” continued Field. “If you go into the Automotive Museum, and you hand somebody a little tail light—it can even be broken—they’ll say, ‘that’s a tail light from a ’53 Buick Skylark.’ They’re that familiar with all the little parts, that with just a fragment, they can picture the whole car. The Automotive Museum is not going to display the broken tail light; they’ll have a complete car that’s reconditioned to look like new. That’s a lot of what we do here in this exhibition. We’re going to rebuild or recondition from a fossil fragment to rebuild or recreate the entire scene.”

Sometimes, when there’s not enough fossil evidence for even a partial skeleton, the Museum makes do with a fleshed out model. While purists might scoff at plastic models replacing the actual skeleton, there’s value for the visitor, according to Field. “You know that big bronze beetle that sits on the floor?” asked Field. “People just love that thing, and they have to sit on it and hug it and get their picture taken. So, knowing that type of exhibition is very successful, throughout FOSSIL MYSTERIES, there are big, huggable animals.

Michael Field

“Along the same lines, in our old exhibition,” said Field, “we have a half-and-half dolphin and a half-and-half fish.” (A half-and-half is a creature shown as half fleshed-out model and half skeleton.) “When we do our visitor ‘spying,’ we time them and track them through the exhibitions—the [half-and-half models] are the most popular exhibitions at the time of that tracking. So knowing how great that is, we’re doing a half-and-half in this exhibition.

“There are two extremes [in presenting things]. Some exhibit designers want to present an animal sculpted with its skin on— more visitors can picture the animal the way it looked when you put the skin on and paint it. Many people want to present just the skeleton because that’s more interesting, and that’s what we find when we find fossils. The half-and-half satisfies both.”

So, to meet visitor expectations, FOSSIL MYSTERIES will display half-and-half models of a lambeosaur and albertosaur (what Curator Tom Deméré jokingly calls “dinosaur tacos”), and a half-andhalf sea cow. And while not exactly “huggable,” the exhibition will include a huge, fiberglass megalodon shark, and models of an American lion, a baby mastodon sculpture (which is huggable), a brontothere, an ankylosaur, and a pteranodon.

Meeting visitor expectations is just one of the many competing goals of the museum. All of the players involved in FOSSIL MYSTERIES had to consider research, marketing, the Museum’s educational mission, and how much of the collection to show. In next month’s Field Notes, Tom Deméré, Michael Field, Nancy Owens Renner, and Lynett Gillette talk about the challenges and compromises they faced in meeting everyone’s expectations for the exhibition.

It wasn’t easy.